June 16, 2005

Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire, David Cannadine

In four words, empire gets you hats. That's the argument made by the pictures; there are some stupendous hats. (There is a Girl Genius Jagermonster joke about hats; but they couldn't outdo the real hats.)

The argument in words is more of a counter to the exploded view that the Empire was a work of virtue, incidentally profitable; and the more current view that it was a work of racism, incidentally profitable. Cannadine argues that the people in charge were reinforcing, or less successfully introducing, societies that looked like their vanishing ideal of England; theatrically hierarchical, romantically rural. They ranked a 'well-bred' foreigner well above a 'low' native Englishman. There are several telling direct quotes, my favorite being the Prince of Wales forcing the crown prince of Germany to give precedence to King Kalakaua of Hawaii. I like this best for two bitter reasons. One, it's not clear the Prince of Wales himself was expected to give precedence (as host, or merely as the more powerful?); a summary of what this politics did to all the lowly. The other is that Victoria's Daughters predisposed me to suspect Queen Victoria's family politics of snubbing Kaiser Billy into starting WWI. It's like searching through a Rube Goldberg drawing for the candle and the half-scorched string.

The details are interesting as the background to Victorian literature, economy, and politics; for the scale and wealth of the British Raj; for hints at how this reified fantasy of pre-Industrial pageantry damped the fires of Industry's imposition. It's easy to scorn the stiff people painted in their funny hats, and quoted saying such rude things, but I was uncomfortably convinced that triple-decker fantasy sagas are the popular descendants of the Durbar pageant and the Kenya villa.

I would have liked much more explanation of why the English masses went along; they clearly didn't like many of the effects on their position. Seduced by tea and sugar, weakened by wage competition? Not powerful enough to do anything anyway? Everyone who really objected moved to a Commonwealth country and subjugated the natives? Some of each?

I greatly liked the final Recessional third about the limitations of Carradine's own interpretation, and the end of the empire, and the incomplete view of it all he had as a child.

ISBN: 0195146603

So wrote clew in History (19th c.).
And thus wrote others:
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